Hawaiian food is influenced by “canoe plants” brought to the islands by Polynesian explorers, followed hundreds of years later by the myriad other people who arrived to work on the plantations. These culinary influencers included Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Mexican, and Filipino, along with other immigrants.
The following list includes authentic Hawaiian foods and those from immigrant cultures. The dishes are list alphabetically by name.
These dishes and foods can be found on restaurant menus and in grocery stores, as well as Hawaiian homes across the island chain. We include suggestions where you can try or buy them in Hawai’i.
We also include a suggested recipe (or two) for many of these dishes. Find more recipes for Hawaiian food on the University of Hawai’i recipes page or locally owned grocery store recipe pages Foodland, Times Supermarkets, and KTA Super Stores. Other favorite Hawaiian recipe sources include Hawaiian Electric recipes and Cooking Hawaiian Style.
Bento is a type of Japanese meal often eaten for lunch packed into a divided tray. In Japan there are many types and styles of bento. In Hawai’i, bento typically contains rice, protein such as fish or chicken, vegetables or salad, and something pickled. Depending on the meal, bento can be hot or cold. It’s a nice option anytime when you want a quick, healthy, affordable meal. Find bento in many places, including convenience stores, grocery delis, sushi shops, restaurants specializing in bento, Hawaiian drive-ins, and other locations.
Chicken Long Rice
Chicken Long Rice contains no rice. It is a simple Hawaiian homestyle dish of boiled chicken and long cellophane noodles. The noodles are also called glass noodles or bean thread noodles, because they are transparent and made from mung bean starch. The chicken is simmered with garlic and ginger, then shredded and tossed with the long noodles. The dish is garnished with green onions. Here’s a simple Chicken Long Rice recipe.
Chili Pepper Water
Chili pepper water is a Hawaiian condiment found in every home and some restaurants, especially those featuring Hawaiian cuisine. It can be splashed over poke, rice, or anywhere you want to add a little zing to your food. Chili water can also be used as a dipping sauce for pieces of meat or fish. It is super easy to make. There is no one “authentic” recipe. The basic ingredients include water, vinegar, garlic, ginger, and chili peppers, seasoned with salt, shoyu, or fish sauce (patis). Store brands often add food coloring; homemade versions are usually clear but not completely colorless. Here’s a recipe for Hawaiian Chili Pepper Water.
Chili Rice is just what it says. A cup of chili with a scoop of rice on top. Hawaiian chili is often a familiar Tex-Mex style made with ground beef, kidney or pinto beans, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and spices. But everyone has their own favorite recipe. I like to add diced Portuguese sausage for local flair. Here’s a Hawaiian Electric recipe for Local Style Chili.
Furikake is a dry Japanese condiment often sprinkled over rice, eggs, and ramen. The ingredients can vary, but the base is usually sesame seeds and seaweed. Other ingredients and seasonings are common. Find it at the grocery store in the Asian food section. In Hawai’i, it is used as an addition to musubi, or to season poke bowls, fried chicken, seafood, and popcorn. I don’t make it, there are many brands and styles at Asian grocery stores or supermarkets in the Asian aisle.
Haupia is a firm coconut dessert pudding usually served cut into squares. Traditionally made with coconut milk, sugar, and cornstarch. Here’s a recipe for Coconut Haupia Dessert and onolicious Kona Coffee Haupia Pie.
Huli in Hawaiian language means “to turn”. In this case, it refers to chicken grilled over hot coals and turned once halfway through cooking, then basted with sauce. The original recipe dates to the 1950s. The inventor was Hilo-born businessman Ernest Frank Morgado (1917-2002). He concocted the recipe as a fundraiser, which proved to be immensely popular. He eventually patented the name (Huli-Huli Chicken) and sold the sauce worldwide. Frank never published his recipe. A basic version of huli-huli sauce includes equal parts catsup, soy sauce, and brown sugar, mixed with chopped ginger and garlic. There are many recipe variations with sherry winbe, chicken broth, pineapple juice, rice vinegar, honey, sesame oil, and other additions. I’m allergic to pineapple and cane sugar, so my version uses tomato sauce, soy sauce, orange zest, fresh OJ, and no sugar (the sauce is plenty sweet without it). Besides making it at home, one of the best places to buy huli huli chicken is at a roadside stand grilling it on the spot until they sell out for the day. Here’s one version of a Huli Huli Chicken recipe.
ʻInamona is a Hawaiian condiment like Japanese furikake. It is made with roasted and chopped kukui nuts (candlenuts) and sea salt. It is used in poke, but is also great sprinkled on fish, rice, or other dishes.
Kalua means to bake in an imu (underground oven). So kalua pig refers to a whole pig cooked in an imu. Hawaiian families and groups will do this for a ʻahaʻaina (celebration or banquet). Tourists may see an imu and taste kalua pig at a luau. Without an imminent party, locals bake pork butt in the oven or slow cooker, rubbed with salt and liquid smoke to achieve a flavor close to kalua pig. Serve it with rice and macaroni salad. Use pulled pork leftovers in dishes such as sandwiches, nachos, pizza, sweet potato hash, chili, sliders, and musubi. Here’s a recipe for Oven-baked Kalua Pork.
Kūlolo or taro pudding is another firm dessert like haupia. I like it for breakfast along with a cup of black coffee. Traditionally made with grated taro root, coconut milk, and raw sugar, kūlolo is oven-baked for several hours. You can find it already prepared at farmers markets and local grocers. Here is Kuana Torres Oven-Style Kūlolo.
Laulau means wrapped package or bundle. In cooking, laulau refers to food wrapped in leaves and cooked (baked, steamed, or grilled). A traditional preparation includes pork, fish, and salt, wrapped in luau (taro) leaves, with a final wrapping of ti leaves. The ti leaves are not eaten, rather unwrapped and discarded. The luau leaves are eaten with the pork and fish. Banana leaves, corn husks, or aluminum foil may be used for the final wrapping instead of ti leaves. Other laulau ingredients can be used, including beef, pork belly, chicken or turkey, salmon, and sweet potatoes, etc. Meats can be omitted in favor of fish and other seafood. Vegetarian versions are also fine using assorted vegetables and tofu or seitan. Laulau is found in grocery stores already steamed and ready to reheat, or as on option in restaurants offering Hawaiian plate lunches. Here’s a recipe for Traditional Pork & fish Laulau and another for Ultimate Laulau Recipe (with a photo of a traditional wrapping style) containing beef, pork, fish, and sweet potatoes. And finally, recipes ideas for Vegetarian Laulau.
Li Hing Mui Powder
Li Hing Mui are dried salted plums, one type of the snacks known as “crack seed”. Ground to a powder, it can be used to flavor a variety of foods, including fresh pineapple, buttered popcorn, shave ice, ice cream, and pickled mangos, or to rim a cocktail glass instead of plain salt. Find it wherever crack seed is sold: local grocers, Longs Drugs, and crack seed stores.
Lomilomi means to rub or massage. To make the dish, diced salmon, tomatoes, and onions are massaged until well-mixed. It is served as an appetizer or accompaniment to other dishes. While salted salmon is commonly used, almost any seafood can be “lomi” such as ʻōpae (shrimp ) and ʻahi (tuna). Other seasonings can be added, including ginger, garlic, rice vinegar, hot chilies, etc. You really don’t need a recipe, but check out Henry Kapono’s Lomi Opae made with dried shrimp.
Loco Moco is a contemporary dish that is pure Hawaiian comfort food, one of many types of “plate lunch”. The classic version includes a grilled hamburger patty with rice and “brown gravy all over”. According to a 2009 story in Hawai’i Magazine, the dish was first served in Hilo at the Lincoln Grill, which no longer exists. ” However, Café 100 in Hilo claims they are home to the famous meal. In any case, you will find Loco Moco on many restaurant menus where Hawaiian plates are served, often topped with a sunny-side up egg. In typical Hawaiian style, there are any number of variations, such as grass-fed beef, smoked meat, pork ribs, Spam, fish, fried rice, crispy rice, sautéed onions and peppers, kimchi, mushroom gravy, aioli sauce, lomi salmon topper, and so on. The name has no meaning in Hawaiian or any other language. Here’s a recipe for Hamburger Steak with Caramelized Onion Gravy.
Luau with Squid or Chicken
Luau can refer to several things. Tourists know it as a popular dinner and hula show. But luau more correctly refers to the leaf of the kalo or taro plant. Kalo leaves are cooked in a beloved homestyle dish called “luau”, which is what we will describe here.
Luau is made by stewing kalo leaves in coconut milk. Other ingredients can be added to luau, most often squid or chicken, but beef, shrimp, paneer, or tofu are other options. I like the convenient ratio of one pound luau leaves to one can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk, simmered very slowly for an hour. Then reduce the heat and add one pound frozen, sliced, cooked tako (octopus) and let it heat through (about 10 minutes)—don’t simmer or the tako will toughen. Serve it alone, over rice, with baked taro root or breadfruit, or with poi. Here’s Sam Choy’s Squid Luau Recipe.
Lumpia are Filipino spring rolls. Made like Chinese egg rolls, a savory filling is rolled up in a thin sheet of wheat flour dough and fried until crisp. Fillings include, pork, shrimp, and vegetables. Meatless fillings are also common. In Hawai’i, sweet chili garlic sauce (such as the Mae Ploy brand) is often served as a dipping sauce. To make them, buy ready-made wrappers and prepare your favorite filling. Ready-to-heat frozen lumpia are also available in grocery stores. Dessert lumpia are also possible, with fillings such as banana, strawberries, jackfruit, coconut, chocolate, cinnamon sugar, and many others. Here’s a recipe for Easy Lumpia with dipping sauce.
Malasadas are Portuguese-style donuts without holes. They can be square or round. Classic malasadas are simply rolled in sugar. But cinnamon, cocoa, li hing mui, and other flavors are used. Malasadas with creamy or fruit fillings are also available. Find them at bakeries and eateries specializing in the sweet treat. They are also a popular fundraiser.
Manapua are Chinese-style steamed bao (buns), classically filled with char siu pork. The name derives from the Hawaiian phrase “mea ono puaʻa”, which translates to “delicious pork pastry”. Manapua gained popularity when enterprising Chinese bakers hawked the portable snacks to workers in the Hawai’i sugar and pineapple plantation camps. In addition to char siu, other fillings include sweet red bean paste, curried chicken, pulled pork, and sweet potato. Find manapua at specialty shops, food trucks, 7-Eleven stores, Costco, and grocery stores (hot deli or frozen foods).
Mac Salad is one of the two side dishes that automatically comes with your entrée when ordering any Hawaiian-style plate lunch. The other side dish is plain rice. You will never find two people who agree on the definitive recipe for Mac Salad. But everyone agrees that it pairs well with smoked meats and salty seafood typical of Hawaiian plates. Nevertheless, at a minimum, Mac Salad in Hawai’i is a creamy concoction of cooked macaroni and diced potatoes (yes, both) dressed with mayonnaise. From there, the variations are endless: large or small elbow macaroni, broken spaghetti instead of elbow macaroni, ‘ulu and/or sweet potato instead of potato, onion, carrots, celery, greens peas, hard-cooked eggs, tuna, shrimp, kamaboko (fishcake), pineapple, vinegar, etc. Whatever the additions, most people agree that an authentic Hawaiian Mac salad is creamy and a little tangy. Here’s a basic recipe for Potato Mac Salad and another for Ulu Mac Salad.
Mochi is a traditional Japanese New Year food made from short-grain glutinous rice that is pounded into paste and molded into shapes. Like many things adopted into Hawaiian culture, mochi is something a little different. Butter mochi is a popular dessert made from sweet rice flour (mochiko) that is baked and cut into squares for serving. The texture can range from cakey to fudgy or custard-like and be flavored in many delicious ways, including coconut, lilikoi (passionfruit), sweet potato, cocoa, peanut butter, pumpkin, and others. Mochiko is used in other ways, savory and sweet: to coat chicken or fish before frying for a crispy crust and in a variety of sweets from breads and muffins to cheesecake. Here’s a basic recipe for Butter Mochi or take it up a notch with Chocolate Butter Mochi or Pumpkin Mochi. And several savory recipes using mochiko: Mochiko Chicken, Mochiko Mahi Mahi, and Korean-Style Shrimp and Chive Pancakes.
Musubi in Japan is a ball of rice wrapped in nori (seaweed) often stuffed with a little surprise such as pickled plums (umeboshi), mushrooms, or salmon. In Hawai’i, musubi are larger, rectangular, and layered with other ingredients, which can sit on top or get sandwiched between layers of rice. The musubi can be fully or partially wrapped with nori. Spam musubi is common (are you surprised?). Many other types are offered, such as hot dogs, pulled pork, tuna, shrimp, egg, and ʻinamona, to name a few variations, as well as less traditional ingredients including salmon, tofu, avocado, bacon, and cheese. Look for musubi wherever snack foods are sold: at fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and grocery deli counters. Or buy a musubi mold (or repurpose a SPAM can) and make your own. The recipe is not rocket science: mold leftover cold rice, put stuff on it you like on it, wrap with nori…. If you need inspiration, here is a slightly jazzed up SPAM musubi recipe, an interesting Vegetable Rice Sushi, and a very modern Fire Torched Miso Glazed Ahi Musubi.
Pipi kaula means “beef rope” and is often described as “Hawaiian beef jerky”, although it is prepared and served differently than the ubiquitous snack food. Pipi kaula is made from raw beef that is salted or marinated, partially dried, and then either smoked or cooked. These methods are the same as those practiced in many other cultures around the world.
When traditionally prepared from bone-in beef short ribs (thinly sliced across as for Korean kalbi), the meat is rubbed with a spice mixture, partially dried, and then refrigerated or frozen. Before serving, it is broiled or fried and served hot with rice. Today, many people like to simply marinate and cook the beef, serving it hot or cold.
If prepared from boneless strips of lean meat, it is dried and then smoked until fully cooked. It is served at room temperature, thinly sliced for pūpū (appetizers or snacks). It can also be prepared “poke style” and tossed with typical poke seasonings such as sea salt, onions, and seaweed.
Plate lunch is the quintessential comfort food meal in Hawai’i. The basic version usually includes two scoops of plain steamed rice, one scoop of mac salad, and the entrée of your choice. Brown rice is sometimes available, or “hapa” rice, which is a half-and-half mixture of white and brown rice. Typical entrées include teriyaki chicken or beef, pulled pork, mahimahi, and garlic shrimp, or a “mixed” plate of 2-3 entrées. But you will find many other offerings and variations at local Hawaiian restaurants.
Poi is Hawaiiʻs most important staple food, like rice in Asian cultures, potatoes in Europe, cassava (as fufu) in Africa, and beans in the Americas. Poi is prepared by baking or steaming kalo corms (taro roots) until tender. The cooked corms are cooled, peeled, and mashed by pounding on a wooden board with a special stone or poi pounder (pōhaku ku’i poi). While not common, poi can also be made from ‘ulu (breadfruit), sweet potato, or plantains.
Mashed kalo is called pa’i’ai (pah-ee-eye)—a highly nutritious food that can be stored for a month. To make poi, pa’i’ai is mixed with water to the desired consistency. Poi can either be thick (requiring one finger to scoop it up) or thin (requiring two fingers).
Many Hawaiians prefer to rest poi at room temperature for a few days to allow it to ferment and sour. Poi is the perfect accompaniment to salted and smoked Hawaiian foods. It is typically served from a communal bowl. Scooping past your first knuckle or using three fingers is considered greedy.
Poke is a dish of raw seasoned fish, traditionally ahi (tuna) or tako (octopus). A basic preparation combines the diced fish with chopped onion, seaweed (such as limu loa aka ogo), and salt. But there are many, many variations. Visit a poke bar at a local grocer or fish shop to see the possibilities. Other ingredients might include ‘inamona, sesame seeds, green onions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, mayonnaise, chili pepper, and tobiko (flying fish roe). By the way, poke means to cut crosswise, as for fish or wood. Here’s a recipe for Kampachi & Ahi Poke and an interesting Vegetarian Roasted Beet Poke.
Portuguese Bean Soup
Portuguese bean soup is a popular comfort food that simmers ham hocks and kidney beans with Portuguese sausage, potatoes, macaroni, onions, carrots, tomatoes, and cabbage. It is simple, filling, and delicious and available everywhere: restaurants, cafés, drive-ins, schools, homes, and festivals. Here’s a basic Portuguese Bean Soup recipe.
Portuguese sausage originated as linguiça—a mild, smoked sausage flavored with garlic and paprika. It evolved in Hawaiian culture to a version that is slightly sweeter and softer. There are several brands produced in the Hawaiian Islands and everyone has their favorite. Besides bean soup, it is a popular breakfast combo with rice and eggs, made into musubi, and served on a bun like a hot dog.
Portuguese Sweet Bread (Pao Doce)
Portuguese sweet bread is made with a rich yeast dough containing milk, eggs, sugar, and butter. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro, or poi can also be added to the dough, which makes the soft, fluffy bread even more tender. Poi turns the bread a pleasant lavender color. The dough can be formed into loaves or rolls. Loaves are often sliced and used to make French toast. Rolls are served for dinner or as a bun for sliders. I like them slathered with butter and Hawaiian honey. Here’s a Portuguese Sweet Bread (Pao doce) recipe and killer Sweet Bread French Toast Casserole.
See Mac Salad. Potato salad and mac salad are one and the same thing. Whether the menu says one or the other, in Hawai’i it usually contains both.
Pūlehu means to broil meat or cook foods in hot embers (especially sweet potatoes, breadfruit, or bananas). It’s an old word showing up on Hawaiian menus. When you see pūlehu on a menu or in recipes, it’s usually referring to grilled meat, poultry, or seafood. The meats are often marinated or rubbed with seasoning before cooking. It’s more of a technique than a specific recipe. Huli Huli Chicken is a type of pūlehu.
Pūpū is the Hawaiian word for appetizer or hors d’oeuvres. Pūpū can be any snack, such as poke, lomilomi salmon, lumpia, manapua, or pipi kaula, as well as chicken wings, potstickers, chips and dip, mixed nuts, or a vegetable tray.
Purple Sweet Potato
Purple sweet potatoes are a tuber commonly found in Hawaiian grocery stores and used in cooking. There are different varieties with light or dark skin, but all have purple flesh. It is used in a wide range of sweet and savory dishes. You can make plain baked or mashed buttered potatoes, potato salad or laulau, and sweet potato pie or mochi, to name a few. See also Ube. Here’s a recipe for Sweet Potato Mochi Patties, Sweet Potato and Kale Salad, and Purple Sweet Potato Cheesecake.
Saimin is a noodle soup unique to Hawaii. The name is based on the Chinese words “sei” and “mein”, which simply means thin noodles. Classic saimin is made with thin, curly, and chewy wheat flour egg noodles (authentically manufactured in Hawai’i) that are simmered in a clean tasting Japanese dashi-style broth flavored with kombu (seaweed) and/or dried shrimp, bonito flakes, and soy sauce. Saimin is typically garnished with spam, kamaboko (fish cake), and green onions. Other ingredients can certainly be added, such as bits of char siu, sliced pipi kaula, pulled pork, egg, shredded carrots, sliced mushrooms, cubes of tofu, or any other favorite ingredients you may have on hand. Here’s a classic recipe for Old Hawaii Saimin.
Shave ice is a sweet snack of flavored syrup drizzled over thinly shaved ice. It is not a snow cone, which is made with crushed ice. The flavors run the gamut, from common fruit flavors like strawberry and cherry, to tropical fruits including banana, pineapple, and passionfruit, and other concoctions such as pina colada and bubble gum. Many shops have recommended combos, which are a good place to start for the uninitiated. There are optional add-ins, such as red beans, ice cream, fresh fruit, and others.
SPAM is a brand of canned lunch meat which was introduced in 1937 by Hormel Foods. It was an affordable and welcomed meat product at the end of the Great Depression whose popularity grew through World War II. The SPAM website lists 14 varieties, including Lite, Smoked, Teriyaki, Portuguese Sausage, and others, in addition to the original. SPAM popularity in Hawai’i is unmatched anywhere else in the world. It started with GIs stationed here during WWII and it took off from there. SPAM is served for breakfast and snacks, and makes its way into soups, as well as many other recipes and meals. The world’s largest SPAM festival is the annual Waikīkī SPAM JAM, benefiting the Hawai’i Food Bank and featuring carving competitions and all things SPAM.
Taro chips are made in the same way as potato chips. The corms are peeled, thinly sliced, and then fried or baked and lightly seasoned with salt. The beautiful chips are creamy colored with streaks of purple.
Ube is another purple tuber similar in texture and use to the purple sweet potato. You will see ube flavored foods, such as ice cream, baked goods, cheesecake, and other goodies. See also Purple Sweet Potato.
ʻUlu (breadfruit) is another important staple Hawaiian food. The large, starchy vegetable can be prepared in many of the same ways as potatoes, including roasted or mashed, chowders and soups, curries and stews, plus ‘ulu chips, ‘ulu fries, and ‘ulu salad. Here is a recipe for Baked Ulu (Breadfruit) Chips, Kipuka Cafe’s Shrimp Curry with Ulu, and Breadfruit and Cracklings Salad.